How Generation Distinct is harnessing young adults’ hunger for change
For as long as she can remember, Hannah Gronowski Barnett has had a desire to make a difference in the world. At 16, after reading a book detailing many of the injustices of our age, she began to form a vision for leading members of her generation to be agents of change.
Her parents and leaders at her church quickly recognized her drive and fanned the flame. “I had a lot of people saying, ‘You have leadership potential.’ Even my pastor said, ‘I see that you are a leader and a world changer.’ Those ‘I see in you’ conversations are transforming,” she wrote in an article for the Global Leadership Network.
Now 26 years old, Gronowski Barnett is the founder and CEO of Generation Distinct (Gen D), a ministry—with a book she authored that shares its title—that encourages millennial and Gen Z young adults to “discover the wrong they were born to make right.” She and her husband Aaron Barnett, who is the partnerships director for Gen D, are both driven by a passion to unleash a gospel movement in the next generation.
The couple is among the 10% of young adults with a Christian background that Barna Group identifies as “resilient disciples”—essentially those who are engaged in the church, believe the Bible, are committed to Jesus and want to transform broader society. It’s no secret that this remnant is shrinking. Lifeway Research reports that among Protestant young adults who attended church for at least a year as a teenager, 69% say they were attending at age 17, 58% at age 18, 40% at age 19, and around a third continued to attend into their 20s.
A multitude of reasons are responsible for this trend, from a loss of institutional credibility to shifting societal beliefs around sexuality to political divisions within the church to personal church hurt, but the core problem may simply be apathy. According to Barna research, when it comes to attending church, 3 out of 5 (61%) of Christian teens say, “I find God elsewhere.”
“It was the next generation of Jesus’ day that he called to start the church—the same demographic that is running away from the church today.”
In our desire to create safe spaces for the next generation and make church attendance attractive, the problem may be that we have set the bar too low. If a teen’s perception of the church is that it’s a social event, by the time that student reaches young adulthood, they’re finding belonging and purpose in other places.
“Students want an authentic faith that’s gonna challenge them,” says Tim McKnight, author of Engaging Generation Z. “How do we help that high school student use their gifts in the church [and help] them understand how they fit in the body, so that when they go off to college it’s unnatural for them not to be part of a gospel community?”
Gronowski Barnett notes that it was the next generation of Jesus’ day that he called to start the church—the same demographic that is running away from the church today. Despite the fact that Jesus was very clear when he sent them out that they would be heavily persecuted, they were drawn by his call, Gronowski Barnett believes, because he invited them to rebuild the ruptured parts of their world and gave them a family to fight alongside.
“As a church we have catered too much to the next generation in a way that has made them feel that the world is all about them. And that the church is all about them. And it’s not,” she says. “The church is supposed to be a sending, missional agent of hope. And the next generation is hungry for someone to send them out with a mission, and we have the most important mission that has ever been.”
There is no denying that issues of justice are profoundly shaping the next generation. In our globally connected world, Gen Z is increasingly plugged-in to all the injustices occurring at any given moment. They also see a disconnect often existing between the things they prioritize and what the church prioritizes. Practicing Christians in the 18 to 35 age range––which constitutes the oldest in Gen Z and most millennials––polled by Barna listed corruption (54%), extreme poverty (35%), racism (33%), and hunger and famines (27%) among the top five global problems facing the world’s future. Unfortunately, passion to take action on these issues is downplayed in many churches or, worse, tagged as a liberal social agenda infiltrating the church.
To the contrary, Aaron Barnett believes addressing injustices is an essential aspect of walking in obedience. “I think it’s a disservice to what Jesus did for me on the cross [not to look] at society when injustice presents itself and say, ‘How do I bring peace like Jesus did?’” he says.
Being constantly exposed to injustice and feeling powerless in the face of it can be both crippling and numbing for Gen Z, and more so when churches are silent on it.
“Changing the world is hard and lonely and discouraging, but changing the world with a family to fight alongside is exciting and beautiful and risky.”
“Among religious members of Gen Z, one of the greatest things they’re wanting more of in their worship communities is more education around injustice. This is the heart cry of the next generation,” Gronowski Barnett says. “It’s not that the world is worse than ever, but we’re more aware of the injustice than ever. The next generation is not just mourning when somebody is hurt in their community. They’re mourning when somebody is hurt in Ukraine.
“This generation has an activist heart. They want to make wrong things right. What if instead of villainizing their love for justice, we stewarded their love for justice and helped connect that with the heart of God?” she says.
In her book Generation Distinct, Gronowski Barnett recalls a prayer she prayed regarding this issue. “Somebody has to tell my generation we don’t need to walk away from you in order to find the life we are searching for. Somebody has to tell my generation we have so much potential. Somebody has to tell my generation we don’t need to wait until we are older or until we have our life figured out to start creating real impact in our world.”
She heard God whisper back, How about you?
Though Gen Z is the most digitally interconnected generation, they are also the most relationally disconnected. The advent of the internet and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones gave rise to the first truly digital-native generation. They also experienced the destabilizing fallout of 9/11 and the Great Recession during their formative years. According to research collected by Jean Twenge and reported in her book iGen, Gen Z is delaying previous generations’ milestones of adulthood, such as getting a driver’s license and pursuing serious romantic relationships, and instead striving for individual success in the workplace and financial stability. They also interact with their friends—unsurprisingly with all the options—more through texting and social media apps than in person.
All this has contributed to Gen Z being the most lonely and anxious generation the modern world has seen. According to a recent survey by Cigna, nearly 8 in 10 Gen Zers (79%) and 7 in 10 millennials (71%) are lonely versus half of boomers (50%).
“Somebody has to tell my generation we don’t need to wait until we are older or until we have our life figured out to start creating real impact in our world.”
“The thing that separates the church from other communities is that we offer that personal interaction, that face-to-face gospel community that they’re not getting anywhere else,” says McKnight. “Real community is something only the church can offer.”
The next generation is hungry for older Christians who will see them, affirm them and welcome them into deeper discipleship and fellowship with the body of Christ. Gronowski Barnett is adamant about this need for Christian community to anchor and give perspective to the drive of the next generation. She likes to call herself a “megachurch kid gone right.” From an early age, her church championed justice issues from the pulpit and gave her a solid foundation and a supportive community to build her faith upon.
“I was able to follow Jesus with even greater passion because I realized he was the one who even gave me my heart for justice,” she says. “Changing the world is hard and lonely and discouraging, but changing the world with a family to fight alongside is exciting and beautiful and risky. Gen Z wants to change the world, and they know deep down that they need a team to do that.”
Transformation Through Community
In 2016, Gronowski Barnett and few friends began to envision a program designed to rally young people back to the church and back to Jesus by exposing them to issues of justice around the world, discipling them in the way of Jesus—the lover of the downtrodden—and equipping them to make a difference.
Over the subsequent years, she and a growing team of volunteers crafted the idea for Gen D into a nonprofit ministry aimed at using conversations around passion, purpose and justice to spark deeper conversations about Jesus, the gospel and the Great Commission.
“In our desire to create safe spaces for the next generation and make church attendance attractive, the problem may be that we have set the bar too low.”
Barnett says they want to help the next generation answer the big questions: “What has God placed in you, what has God placed on you and what can we do through you to maximize you for kingdom impact?”
The ministry is anchored by Launch Your Passion, an online, six-month program highlighting 12 forms of injustice that was created in collaboration with over 50 experts. That phase is followed by two to three months of support as each participant crafts their World Change Strategy with measurable goals around one of five tracks: entrepreneurship, evangelism, mentorship, activism or visionary (arts and communication).
“The church was designed to be transformational, not only in me, but in the world,” Barnett says. “If we can live with a transformational mindset to be a contributor to the world, to society, we will see great kingdom impact established.”
He and Gronowski Barnett are quick to distinguish Gen D from other youth activist movements that put the individual at the center and are aimed at leveraging justice issues to make them feel like a hero.
“To be the right person for the right problems we have to have the right mindset and the right heart,” Barnett says. “We are not the heroes at Generation Distinct, but we are co-creators in the kingdom, on the earth.”
The informal slogan of Gen D is “We believe in you, we’re for you, we’re with you.” Gronowski Barnett says that many people say the most transformational part of the program was just hearing those words. They’d never had a leader look at them and tell them that.
This is again where Christian community comes in. “We believe at Generation Distinct that we truly are better together. The kingdom of God is better when we work together,” Barnett says.
A Dream Fulfilled
After two-and-a-half years of beta testing, Gen D publicly launched their program and Gronowski Barnett’s book in fall 2020. Their first cohorts launched in early 2021 with 19 young leaders from 10 states and three different countries.
The program is already bearing encouraging fruit. Jessica, a 26-year-old teacher and a Gen D participant, gained a fresh vision for reaching the other teachers at her school, and a new lease on her faith.
“The church is supposed to be a sending, missional agent of hope. And the next generation is hungry for someone to send them out with a mission.”
“Going through [the program] has completely rejuvenated my faith. I’ve always struggled with faith, especially when I see the church being complicit in so many injustices,” she says. “However, this experience of going through [the program] and getting to hear from so many great speakers allowed me to realize that Jesus is more passionate about injustice than I’ll ever be, and that has really changed my faith completely.”
Another 21-year-old woman named Kiersten, who had been hurt at church, was feeling disconnected. She joined the program and found healing through conversations about what it actually means to follow Jesus. She has since launched a podcast, is attending a church again and is now a cohort leader for Gen D.
For Gronowski Barnett, these stories and many more are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The transformation that happens in the individual’s life is exciting, but that’s really only half of the transformation,” she says. “The transformation has a multiplying effect … when people are invested in what we’re doing, really they’re investing into movements that we won’t even know [about].”
At the end of the day, Gen D equips local churches with the tools they need to understand, disciple and catalyze the next generation to have an impact on society in ways they are already passionate about. They are fundamentally for the local church, connecting the passion of the next generation with the purpose and power of the gospel.
“Generation Distinct is good, but it’s not the bride that Jesus came to die for. That’s the local church. We want to be a part of equipping the church to reach the next generation,” Gronowski Barnett says. “How are we sending the next gen out of the four walls of our church into the communities with a team around them, saying, ‘Go out and see what your community needs and tell them about Jesus and be missional and love the poor and care for the oppressed’? That’s how true family is forged. If we did those things as a church, the next generation would flock back.”
She gets emotional when she reflects on her journey. “I just go back to that 16-year-old’s dream that is literally coming to life in front of my eyes,” Gronowski Barnett says. She and others at Gen D are making a difference, reintroducing a generation to the Prince of Peace who came to establish justice, and helping them discover the wrongs they were born to make right.